Political juggernaut

Pub date June 1, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan


City officials are scrambling to secure final approvals to allow Lennar Corp. to move forward with its 770-acre Candlestick/Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment of San Francisco’s impoverished and polluted southeast sector. But the community remains divided on the project, raising concerns that wary residents will end up being steamrolled by this politically powerful juggernaut.

Some groups say the project needs major amendments, but fear it will be rushed to the finish for political reasons. Others say they are hungry to work and desperate to move into better housing units, so they don’t want all the myriad project details to slow that progress. And Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration is arguing that approving the project’s final environmental impact report by June 3 is crucial if San Francisco wants to keep the San Francisco 49ers in town.

But many observers fear Lennar wants its entitlements now before its project can be subjected to greater scrutiny that could come with the November elections. Newsom, who made Lennar’s project the centerpiece of his housing policy, will be replaced as mayor if he wins the lieutenant governor’s race. And a crowded field of candidates, many of them progressives concerned about the project’s impacts on the poor and the environment, are vying to replace termed-out Sup. Sophie Maxwell, whose district includes Lennar’s massive territory.

“It’s 180 percent about the 49ers,” land use attorney Sue Hestor told the Guardian, referring to the city’s proposed rush job, as evidenced by a rapid entitlement schedule that the Newsom’s administration wants city commissions and the board to follow.

Under that schedule, which Hestor procured from the Mayor’s Office, Planning and Redevelopment commissioners are expected to certify the project’s final 6,000-page EIR, adopt California Environmental Quality Act findings, approve amendments to the project’s original disposition and development agreement, and authorize land trust and open space reconfigurations — all during a June 3 meeting where public comment will likely last for many hours.

Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a community-based nonprofit that tracks the development, says this schedule stretches the credulity that this is a deliberative process. “There’s no way anyone could make a functional reasoned assessment,” Bloom told us. “How do you have any meaningful public conversation under those circumstances?”

Michael Cohen, Newsom’s chief economic advisor, asserted in an April 29 article in The New York Times that Lennar’s plan is a “really, really good project,” echoing the glowing praise he’s heaped on the project since its conception.

“But there’s nothing new in their proposal,” Bloom told us. “That’s because they haven’t been listening to the public’s concerns. [Cohen] says, ‘Haven’t we talked enough? The community’s been waiting all these years!’ But waiting to get what done?”

Lennar’s project — which had early backing from Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and other political power brokers — was sold as creating “jobs, housing, and parks” and “revitalizing the abandoned shipyard” when voters approved the Lennar-financed Proposition G in 2008.

“Proposition G is from the community and for the community,” Lennar’s campaign promised. “You can turn the abandoned Hunters Point Shipyard into a clean, healthy, sustainable, livable neighborhood — a place where people can raise their children.”

The shipyard once employed thousands of workers, including African Americans who were recruited from the South in the 1940s and ’50s. But the district’s economic engine fell into disrepair when the military left in 1974. Today the neighboring Hunters Point and Bayview neighborhoods have the highest unemployment and crime rates and the largest concentration of African American families in the city.

But the city’s final EIR for the project, which the Planning Department released mid-May, shows that 68 percent of the developer’s proposed 10,500 new housing units will be sold at market rates unaffordable to area residents, and that many of these units will be built on state park land at Candlestick Point.

Lennar is also proposing to build a bridge across the environmentally sensitive Yosemite Slough, significantly changing the southeast waterfront. Lennar says it plans to develop the project’s remaining 3,000 units at below market prices, including one-for-one replacement of rundown Alice Griffith public housing units. Its proposal includes a dozen high-rise towers, 2.7 million square feet of commercial space, 1 million square feet of retail space, a performing arts theater, and an artists colony.

Lennar claims its proposal will create 1,500 construction jobs annually during the project’s 20-year build-out, along with 10,000 permanent jobs, thanks to a United Nations Global Compact Sustainability Center and a vaguely defined green technology office park.

The project and its impacts are already an issue in this year’s District 10 supervisor’s race (see “The battle for the forgotten district,” Feb. 23). Candidate Chris Jackson says Lennar’s proposal is weak when it comes to creating well-paying, low-skilled green collar jobs. He supports Arc’s proposal to including green maritime industrial use at the shipyard.

Arc recommends that the city’s final EIR allow recycling and repairing of ships, including the Suisun Bay Ghost fleet — decommissioned U.S. Navy, cruise, and ferry ships — arguing that “ship recycling and repair are resurgent strategic industrial activities yielding employment opportunities for our existing pool of skilled and unskilled workers.”

Jackson, who was elected to the Community College Board in 2008 and recently jumped into the District 10 race, wants the city to assert that the project is not a regional housing plan.

“It’s a local housing plan for local residents,” Jackson asserts. “It’s not here to provide housing for Silicon Valley. It’s for Bayview-Hunters Point and District 10 residents.”

Jackson understands why some local residents want no delays on final EIR approval: “I can never blame folks in Alice Griffith public housing for coming out and saying ‘no delays.’ They really want something real, housing that is not rat and cockroach infested.”

As a policy analyst (a position he’s quitting to focus on the District 10 race) for the San Francisco Labor Council — which gave key backing to the project in the 2008 election — Jackson knows labor is frustrated by all the project meetings. “I try to tell them it’s better to get this project right than rush it through and find out later that it goes against the interests of labor,” Jackson said.

In May 2008, the Labor Council signed a community benefits agreement (CBA) with Lennar. Since then labor leaders have urged no delays on the project’s draft EIR review. But Jackson believes the city must demand that financial consequences, such as liquidated damages, be a project approval condition if the developer reneges on the CBA.

“Right now the only push-back the city has is to threaten to kill the whole project if Lennar doesn’t meet its timeline,” Jackson said. “But people are really invested in this project, and I don’t believe anyone would pull the trigger and end the entire development. We don’t need to throw everything out; we just need to change them.”

Jackson wants to see the inclusion of a special-use district that would create a cooperative land trust to ensure affordability and home ownership opportunities for local residents. “I love open space and sustainability, but I also want affordable housing and real light-industrial opportunities that can employ people living in the district now.”

Special-use districts, Jackson argues, give city commissioners a way to amend this project to make it more acceptable.

Jackson wants to see strong tenant protections for public housing residents. “The vast majority of those residents are African American. At the end of the day, I want to see economic and environmental justice, so we can say we brought the right change to our community.”

Jackson also would like to see a more independent Mayor’s Office. “Don’t you feel like its 2002/2003, and that if you speak out against the project, it’s like you are speaking out against the Iraq war, and all of a sudden you are not patriotic?”

Fellow District 10 candidate Eric Smith concurred. “The powers that be are definitely moving this thing forward,” he said. “And this is a monster train, a juggernaut that is gathering steam. But how it shakes out down the road remains to be seen. My whole mantra is that there needs to be greater transparency down the line. If I become the sheriff, I’ll be shining a light on all this stuff.”

Smith warned that the community needs to work together or it won’t win a better deal. “It’s clear that folks in the city are hoping against all odds that Lennar can pull this stuff off so they can prove all the naysayers wrong and these community benefits can be realized, and that scrutiny of the projects can go on while all this happens,” he said.

But Arthur Feinstein, the Sierra Club’s political chair, worries that the city’s rush job is resulting in seriously flawed documents and decision-making. “It’s difficult for folks to digest 6,000 pages of comments and responses on the draft EIR in the three weeks since planning posted them online,” Feinstein said. “And nothing has changed despite all the comments, which is why it continues to be a nonsense process.”

Feinstein says the Sierra Club’s top concerns are the Parcel E-2 cleanup on the shipyard, a deal to transfer 23 acres at Candlestick Park for development, and the bridge over Yosemite Slough.

“You can cover most of the site,” he said. “But when it comes to Parcel E-2, where the dump burned for six months in 2002, that’s only 20 acres, it could and should be removed. This is the environmental justice issue that has the community up in arms.”

Feinstein worries about the precedent that selling a state park for condos sets. “This is our park, and they are shrinking it.” He is also concerned that the developer wants to bridge Yosemite Slough for cars.

How many of these concerns will be addressed at the June 3 hearing, which is just days before Santa Clara County voters decide whether to try to lure away the 49ers with a new publicly financed stadium? We’ll see.